D’var Torah: Happy Birthday to us, no matter how we count months


Rabbi Josef Davidson

Rabbi Josef Davidson

Living in a Western culture as we do, most of us mark time according to the Gregorian calendar, a strictly solar calendar in which the new year begins every Jan. 1, that month being the first month in a 12-month series spanning 365 days. There is a slight problem with this solar calendar in that the number of days required for the Earth to make a complete cycle around the sun is 365¼ days. Therefore, each year is a quarter of day short. 

This is remedied by adding an additional day to February every four years in order that the calendar remains synchronized with the Earth’s trip around the sun. As children we were taught at least pneumonic means by which to remember which months were 30 and which were 31 days and how to deal with February’s unique length and additional day every four years. Easy-peasy!

We are also aware that there is a Jewish calendar, also of 12 months in duration but not synchronized with those of the Gregorian calendar. We even joke about it when we say that “the holidays are either early or late but never on time!” 

The Jewish calendar is quite a bit more complicated. It is a lunar calendar (the word “month” is derived from the word “moon”). 


However, there is a problem with a strict lunar calendar, especially for an agrarian society like the one in which our ancestors lived. That problem is that 12, relatively equal months following the moon’s cycle add up to only 354 days, 11 days short of a solar year. This means that festivals which hallow seasonal changes would be progressively “behind” each year. In three years they would arrive more than a month early, in six years more than two months early, and so forth.

Therefore, the Jewish calendar has to make up those losses by adding not a day to one month in the calendar but by adding a month every two or three years to insure that fall, winter, spring and summer sacred times remain in their proper seasons. We are in such a year and in the second month named Adar (normally the 12 month year, but this year it was 12 and 13th with Adar I and Adar II months). 

But wait. There’s more. If Adar is the 12th month of the year, what month was Tishrei, the month in which we celebrated Rosh Hashanah? It was the seventh month. How do we know? This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hachodesh. (Chodesh is the Hebrew word for “month” and is derived from the word for “new.”) It is so called because it immediately precedes or falls on Rosh Chodesh (“the new month of”) Nisan. In a special Torah reading this Shabbat from a second scroll, we learn that it is called the first month because the text begins: “This month (Hachodesh Hazeh) shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Exodus 12:2) So, the New Year begins with the seventh month, and six months later (seven in a leap year) it is the first month!

Why is the coming month called “the first of all of the months of year” when if falls in the middle of the year? There are two familiar examples that may aid in understanding this seeming contradiction. One is the concept of a fiscal year. 

The second example is one that is familiar to every person. It is the concept of a “birth day.” No matter when the common year begins, people count their own years beginning with the day they were born. One does not become a year older Jan. 1 unless that coincides with one’s birthday. Each person’s birthday marks the first month of that person’s next year. 

Shabbat Hachodesh announces that the birthday of the Jewish people, Pesach/Passover, is coming, the first month marking the transition from an enslaved people to a free people. Out of that narrow place (Mitzrayim/Egypt), the Jewish people enter the world stage, and Jews the world over mark that birthday with the Festival of Unleavened Bread/Pesach/Passover. Rosh Hashanah may mark the birthday of the world, but Jews mark their own birthday six months later in the first month in which we first began to exist. 

May the Festival of Freedom continue to inspire the Jewish people and all people to value freedom and to resist tyranny and enslavement for many more years to come.  

Shabbat Shalom! Chodesh Tov! Chag Same’ach!

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.